Whispers from Westminster

15th April 2016 at 00:00
The country needs you to churn out graduates

One of the fascinating things about of the rise in undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 is that it hasn’t deterred young full-time entrants at all.

In fact, both entry numbers and entry rates to university among 18- and 19-year-olds are at a record high, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. David Laws, the former schools minister, writes ruefully in his new book of how the tuition fee vote was by far the biggest mistake made by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition – but only because of previous pledges the party had made, in error, to scrap them.

He concludes, unequivocally, that “the new policy was eventually and by any fair judgement a huge success”. But the empirical success of the policy hasn’t stopped some on the Left agitating for a complete abolition of fees (A £3,000 tax cut for those earning £60,000 a year, Mr Corbyn? At a total annual cost of £10 billion? Well, if that’s really your priority…)

And it hasn’t stopped some on the Right still grumbling that “too many children” go to university (their own offspring almost certainly not included).

But the fact is that there is no magic about the higher education participation rate – several of our major economic competitors send more young people on to further study. And some data released last week by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows the future demand for graduates. Between 2014 and 2024 there will be 14 million new job openings in the UK; the majority due to people retiring, but with almost 2 million being made up of newly created jobs. And by 2024, almost half (46 per cent) of all jobs – and 70 per cent of new ones – will exist in what are termed the three highest occupational classifications: managers and directors; professional occupations; and associate professional and technical occupations. As schools are all too painfully aware, it’s a hot market for graduates out there.

There will also be an expansion at the lower-skilled end. And similarly, if one looks at where the biggest shortages are in the labour market, these tend to be in highly skilled technical areas.

The best way to think of the UK economy is as an hourglass – growing jobs at the top and bottom, with a squeeze in the middle caused by globalisation, outsourcing and automation.

What this means for schools is that there is no case for deterring students from HE on the grounds that jobs won’t be there, or that they’ll incur debt, or that they might like to learn a trade instead. University still represents a sound investment and attractive path for young people (including through studying top-end technical qualifications like degree apprenticeships). We need more people with higher-level skills and degrees, not fewer.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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